If the Eagles are going to become not just a playoff contender but a contender for something bigger this season – a possibility that still exists – it won’t be the front office getting the job done. From here on out, the burden falls on Doug Pederson and his staff to take the pieces that are on the table and fit together the puzzle.
Sure, the team could pick up a receiver from the NFL scrap heap, but there are reasons those guys are available. Finding someone who can make a difference midway through the regular season, after the trade deadline door has slammed shut, is more than a long shot.
No, this is going to be a coaching job, and from it we’ll learn something about Pederson that isn’t really known yet. His interpersonal skills are obvious. Players like the way he treats them. They like playing for him. The “emotional intelligence” owner Jeffrey Lurie sought after enduring Chip Kelly is what Pederson does very well.
The other part of the job, and the part the Eagles need most right now, has nothing to do with emotion. They need a tactician capable of adjustments and innovations that can accentuate a team’s strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and produce the best possible version of those available players.
Pederson might be just the guy. We’ll see. Fairly or not, it has been observed that the Eagles did their most brilliant pivot on offense when Frank Reich was the offensive coordinator. When the team shifted from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles at the end of the 2017 season, it was a radical stylistic shift, and one has to say it worked out pretty well.
That’s not to imply Pederson merely went out for sandwiches while Reich put on his Mister Wizard cap and rewrote the playbook. It was probably something of a collaboration. But if Pederson would like to dispel any notion he rode that train as much as he drove it, then this would be a great time to do so.
There is an answer to the current problem, which is not having a deep-threat receiver to keep opposing defenses honest. It might not be an answer that will allow the Eagles to ace the test all the way to February. But it is an answer that can make them a serious contender to get there. The problem, of course, is finding it. And that is Doug Pederson’s job. Good thing for him he’s got two weeks to solve it.
The bye-week break is always useful for looking back at what has worked, and what has not, and implementing a course correction if necessary.
“That’s the challenge this week as a staff to go back and assess and reevaluate and really break down these first nine games and really look at it with open eyes, honestly. We’re not game-planning this week, so we get a chance to do that,” Pederson said Monday. “We have to find consistency, especially in our passing game. We have to find a common thread and see what has been the breakdown. You have to be able to target an area and then [say], ‘OK, here is our plan to fix it.’”
The chain of events Sunday and Monday that began with a healthy and refreshed DeSean Jackson returning to the field, and ended with Jackson finally acquiescing to the sports hernia surgery he has needed since September, put the exclamation point on Pederson’s task this week.
Without Jackson, or someone like him, the team needs to construct 12- and 14-play drives if it wants to score. That can happen, but it isn’t the way to play. The good news for Pederson is he has a lot going for him. The offensive line is very good, and he has two running backs and two tight ends who are very productive. He has a decent enough quick-hitting slot receiver in Nelson Agholor, and a usually serviceable target receiver in Alshon Jeffery.
It’s not nothing, and there are some things the offense does well. It is fourth in the league in third-down conversion percentage, ninth in red-zone efficiency, and second in goal-to-go situations. Where the offense bogs down is in explosiveness, ranking 18th in yards per game, and 21st in yards per pass attempt. So, Pederson has to invent some explosiveness, or at least the appearance of it.
That’s a full plate for a bye week, and the coaching staff will also break down what plays are called, and when, and whether there are patterns to them that tip off opponents. They will get the printouts and note that when the Eagles have had a third down and 3-6 yards to go for a first down, there have been 14 runs and 37 passes. They will puzzle over whether that seems about right.
Pederson and his staff will look at the direction of their running plays and see that the team has run around the right end 44 times for a 2.27 yards per carry average, with the first number being the most in the league and the second number being last in the league. It doesn’t take an analytics expert to say if you are doing something both more and worse than everyone else, you might want to take a look at that.
There are dozens of factors in their successes and failures that must be taken apart and studied before the plan is put back together. The plan can’t be a perfect-world plan, but molded to fit the personnel at hand. Doug Pederson was hired to be one of 32 guys in the world sharp enough to do that, to devise a strategy that takes an imperfect team to the pinnacle of its potential.